Friday, December 28, 2012

Game Over: Foreign talent sports personalities ditch Singapore for their China motherland

After getting what they wanted, even the appeal of a new life in Singapore has failed to keep certain foreign-born sports personalities anchored in the Lion City.

If they won't stay, then what is the whole point of the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme which spirited them to our city-state?

Implicit in the arrangement where foreigners are flown to the city-state and Singaporeanised so they can don national colours and play for Singapore is the assumption that they would eventually call this country home, settle down and add to the gene pool. All this while, their Singapore-born compatriots were supposed to benefit from having sparring partners whose presence helps lift the level of assorted sports to new levels.

Alas, the pull of the Chinese motherland has proven too strong for some. Their readiness in heading home back to their country of birth proves the assumption false.

Two table tennis stars have already decided to head back to China after announcing their respective retirements.

Ms Li Jiawei's decision to be "based in China" mirrors the move by former teammate Ms Wang Yuegu, who headed home after quitting the sport this August.

While not quite enough to indicate a trend, how many more must do the same before one realises the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme may not be working as intended?

Sure, we won armfuls of medals but is this the endgame engineered by the scheme? One had the impression it was supposed to persuade foreign talent to sink their roots here - which clearly isn't happening.

Perhaps we overrated the appeal of Singaporean citizenship to benchwarmer sports "stars" whose departure from their mother country marked no big loss to their erstwhile home nation's Olympic ambitions.

Maybe we, as a country, failed to do more to keep our new citizens feeling part and parcel of life in Singapore.

Could we have miscalculated just how much the war bounty in Singapore dollars, amassed from successful sporting campaigns, translates to when coverted into their currency of choice. It represents not just wealth, mind you, but an opportunity for starting life afresh at a new social strata, thanks to Singaporean tax payers.

It would be a mockery of Singapore's national identity if the global sports community views the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme as a lottery ticket to untold fame and riches, provided one is willing to pay the price of lipsynching an alien national anthem [Note: Singapore's national anthem is in the Malay language] and having the Singapore flag temporarily eclipse ties to their country of birth.

Even if we dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" dutifuly, perhaps it's time to recognise the painful reality that what we value as our Singaporean identity isn't cherished or treasured the same way by some of our foreign imports.

Such theorising would be harmless if not for the hard truth that the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme runs on tax payers dollars - all of which could have been put to better use nurturing the fraternity of Singapore-born sports boys and girls in achieving greater heights.

To be sure, this kind of argument has to be trotted out delicately because it flirts with the Establishment's cluster bomb defence which is to label the commentator as being closed-minded, anti-immigrant, even xenophobic.

The mainstream media has thus far been kind on Jiawei.

The 90 cents newspaper quoted her saying: "It's impossible to describe my feelings now in just one or two sentences."

The paper added sympathetically:"It is not hard to understand why, since her link to her adopted country goes beyond simply sharing the same birthday - Aug 9." [Note: The 9th of August is Singapore's National Day]

It followed up with this bizarre line:"Li has spent more time here in Singapore than in China, her country of birth." [One should certainly expect that to be the case because Jiawei is a Singaporean. Where else do you expect her to spend her time? Outer Mongolia?]

The clearest signal that Jiawei's decision to be "based in China" isn't some euphemism for a long-term stay in the Middle Kingdom could have been drawn from the fate of her three-year-old Singapore-born son, Tianrui.

Nobody bothered to ask what plans the Singaporeanised mother has for Tianrui. News reports are silent whether he will someday serve National Service alongside the sons of Singapore, whose parents cheered and rooted for mummy during her heyday.

Don't bet on it.

Defence highlights in 2013

Yes, it's not yet 2013 but it's good to shake up the template and get folks thinking.

Defence and national security highlights for 2013 include the following:

Major anniversary:
The coming year will mark a decade since the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Singapore. Current Chief of Defence Force (CDF) of the Singapore Armed Forces, Lieutenant-General Neo Kian Hong, was instrumental in leading a team of Singapore Army reconnaissance specialists who set up a facility to track people who were thought to have come into contact with SARS-affected residents. He was then a division commander.

The Contact Tracing Centre his soldiers set up had no precedent nor guidebook to signpost how it should be organised, structured and manned. Staffed by army scouts 24/7, this centre helped Singapore's medical professionals understand and mitigate the spread of SARS as doctors used the contact tree to form a mindmap of people thought to have come into close contact with SARS carriers.

Leadership renewal:
We're likely to see a new Chief of Defence Force (CDF). If the cards fall into place as planned (can't really be sure nowadays with all sorts of shenanigans by top flight civil servants), we're likely to see a new Chief of Air Force too. You may like to read this commentary on whether CAF should wear wings. Click here.

Navy Open House:
The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) is due to hold its Navy Open House sometime in April/May next year. There is at least one fast craft design the RSN has yet to unveil though it has been in service for several years. Hopefully, they will pick 2013 as the year to talk about it.
Click here to see the Navy Open House 2010 Report Card.

IMDEX naval show:
Back after a two-year break, IMDEX takes place from 14 to 16 May 2013 at Changi Naval Base.

Weapon replacement:
You may want to read this as a primer. Shalom.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers train their sights on solving SMRT's rail woes

When people lose their faith in management direction of entities linked to Singapore's investment arm, Temasek Holdings, the price erosion that follows is often the best-case scenario.

For entities like SMRT Corporation, Singapore's largest train and bus operator, the blast radius resulting from a loss of faith extends far beyond a drop in SMRT's stock market fortunes.

SMRT stakeholders include commuters who get around using its mass rapid transit rail system and bus routes, the government regulator as well as political appointees tasked with regulating Singapore's transport network. A loss of faith among commuters could come back to haunt the Establishment when people mull over the government's track record in assorted lifestyle areas and decide whether or not they deserve that "X" in the box.

This is why SMRT is a vehicle which is too large to fail.

A two-front war
For the handful of former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) who have or will soon step aboard SMRT, the battle to stabilise the company will be one of the most challenging and high-profile tussles they have ever waged.

Leading the charge is former Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Desmond Kuek who has or will soon be joined by at least four former SAF officers.

Interestingly, the SAF Armour Formation's footprint in SMRT will grow substantially from 2013.

Senior among the ranks is SMRT's CEO himself (ex-54th Singapore Armoured Brigade, ex-4 SAB, ex-41st Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment). He will be joined by Colonel Gerard Koh (ex-46 SAR) and Lieutenant-Colonel Tan Kian Heong (ex-4 SAB, ex-441 SAR), both of whom are from the SAF Armour alumni. Indeed, half of the four new hires come from the Armour Family, giving the Singapore Army's arm of decision an overwhelming presence in SMRT compared to other combat and combat support arms. (Purists would also count former SMRT Senior Vice-President Communications & Services, Colonel Goh Chee Kong (ex-8 SAB) as part of Armour's contribution to SMRT. COL Goh has since left the company.)

As SMRT's revamped management grapple with the complexities of rolling stock and train ops, heartware issues with SMRT staff and commuters who have had to bear the brunt of service disruptions will make this a two-front war where satisfying one side may come at a cost of sacrificing the other.

Swift and decisive management intervention will earn the SAF oodles of goodwill and respect from market watchers who are convinced militarymen can serve meaningful careers in civvie street.

The average commuter probably couldn't give a hoot who is in charge so long as their buses and trains run on time and fares stay reasonable.

As for SMRT's shareholders, they are likely to watch the state of play closely. Having tasted years of healthy dividends under the previous management, any deviation from this course could draw incoming fire during the next annual general meeting with shareholders.

Sceptical audience
The new management's battle for investors' confidence may be complicated by the sceptical yet influential audience that awaits them among market watchers. Such scepticism stems from years of experience watching certain Temasek-linked counters tank despite management statements that sought to calm or reassure the market.

It is important to remember that a good dozen or so research heads and fund managers who started their respective careers in the late 1990s have lived through the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, 2000 Dotcom bubble, 9/11 attack in 2001, SARS crisis in 2003 and the 2008 sub prime crisis.

Having witnessed the negative impact of various recessions on TLC's share value, these market movers, who are mostly in their late 30s and 40s, are understandably wary of management who try to charm market watchers. They have heard it all before and will not be an easy crowd to win over with platitudes.

Industry veterans would recall how counters like Chartered Semiconductor and ST Assembly Test Services never quite recovered from value erosion after the tech bubble burst despite their Temasek parentage. Promises of a turnaround never materialised and many of these then-young industry watchers had a tough time explaining to their clients how these one-time market darlings became stock market rejects.

"Shareholders would hold on to the safety of such transport utility companies as they have a guaranteed market (the riders), a built-in inflation proof-pricing mechanism which allows them to give off good cashflow ( since projects are well-funded) and be operationally sound. If they can give decent dividends (approx 3% ) SMRT just has to ride this out. In 6 months time it will be forgotten," said one industry player who had his baptism of fire during the Asian Financial Crisis.

"SMRT does not require “new” sources of capital from the public. Nor do people have an alternative. In fact when theres no news on SMRT I think that’s probably when thigns are running well!"

It will take more than the usual public relations charm offensive to convince industry sceptics that SMRT is on track to better times.

Indeed, with new management blood, everyone recogises the TLC is at a turning point: they are just understandably wary as turning points can swing both ways.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Silent treatment: Spin doctors go into damage control mode after disgraced MP Michael Palmer quits politics

In attempting to save face, the party's spin doctors risk losing people's hearts and minds.

With the People's Action Party (PAP, aka the Men In White) in damage control mode after disgraced Speaker of Parliament and ex-Member of Parliament (MP), Michael Palmer, quit politics last Wednesday, there is a risk that Singaporeans may feel the MIW do not have what it takes to roll with the blows and suck it up when the chips are down.

Post-mortems of newspaper coverage of the political debacle indicate that the city-state's mainstream media appear to have acknowledged the call by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean to give the Palmers "time and space for healing to take place".

So apart from Mr Palmer's appearance at a press conference on Wednesday and a farewell visit that same evening to grassroots leaders at Punggol East, which he represented as MP, the man has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.

No-fly zone
If the Singaporean media's lethargy in chasing the newsmaker behind the biggest upheaval to shake the Lion City's political scene since last May's General Elections stems from a desire to give Mr Palmer space he needs to get his shattered family life back on the mend, then it appears this no-fly zone does not extend to lesser mortals people associated with the extramarital affair which shot down Mr Palmer's high flying political career.

His love interest, Laura Ong, has been outed by her former employer, the People's Association (PA).

Local scribes dug out the name of Ms Ong's husband, Darren Seng Chee Kwong, with whom she is estranged.

And in a demonstration that local newshounds can hunt down their quarry, the 90 cents newspaper tracked down one Andy Lim, the man said to be dating Ms Ong, visited his home and attempted a phone interview.

They did the same to Ms Ong's flat in Marine Parade to the extent that a resident had to summon the police. Three interns from the Today newspaper were even caught on the premises of Ms Ong's former office. Heaven only knows what they expected to find there - incriminating love notes, signs of trysts?

Main course vs side dishes
The local media has been silent on whether such tactics were unleashed at Palmer's gate.

And it's not that the 90 cents newspaper lacks of effort, brains or grit to do so. During the NKF saga, a 90 cents newspaper photographer spent eight hours stalking TT Durai's main gate. He was rewarded with a picture of the man crouched, fugitive-like in the backseat of a car as it left the residence and was commended for his effort with a newscom award.

Why go for side dishes when the main course is left untouched?

Could it be that the mainstream media has held off in a nod to the Establishment's placement of an out-of-bounds marker at the Palmer residence?

If there is no gag order, is the media so cowed by previous run-ins with the Establishment that local newsrooms have decided that discretion is the better part of valour as far as Palmergate is concerned?

It surely couldn't stem from newsroom incompetence (or do I stand corrected?) as even the greenest journalism newbie would recognise that the newsmaker to gun for hasn't been quoted in any way, shape or form since Wednesday's press conference.

If Mr and Mrs Palmer speak on record, that would be a headline story.

How did the affair begin? Who made the first move? How long did it last? What did you both do on Mondays? Why the mea culpa? What did you say to your wife and 10-year-old son when it was game over?

Don't hold your breath for answers to these questions in Singaporean newspapers.

Iron hand
The party's tight control over newsflows is worrisome. It points to an attitude towards information management during a crisis that shows Singaporeans cannot rely on the mainstream media to tell the full story. It telegraphs the party's sensitivity to bad newsflows. When the circuit breaker trips, the game plan is to clamp up on news like this whole blooming country would collapse from the bad news and foreign investors would run away.

Indeed, one could argue the opposite: that investors in a country where people have to read between the lines to sense what is going on are going to be even more cautious where they park their funds.

In an altruistic scenario where well-meaning MIW party leaders have Singapore's best interests at heart, tight control of information is not necessarily a bad thing. Internal disciplinary processes deal with politicians who stray and the party does not tolerate one atom of abuse of power, position and privilege. These actions may take place away from the public eye but the end results - fallen stars like Mr Palmer - are an unmistakeable sign that housekeeping has come a-calling.

However, such blind trust is open to abuse.

The rot will not set in overnight and the pace of change may be glacial.

Indeed, it make take decades of obseisance, war stories handed down from one newsroom generation to the next, more rice bowls of journalists broken over time before one day, Singapore wakes up to a generation of running dogs - to borrow a phrase from Singapore's first Chief Minister, David Marshall - who will not only eat out of one's hand but will also beg and do tricks on command.

You may also like:
Singapore Government's pledge for more openness requires rewiring the system's sensitivity to feedback, removal of vindictive mindset for views it dislikes. Please click here

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A cry for help: Strike by SMRT China-born bus drivers reviewed from a crisis communications and staff relations perspective

Depending on whom you speak to, last week's wildcat strike by SMRT's bus drivers from China could be termed a stunning success for gaining Management's attention or an abject failure of collective action.

Companies who do not want to walk down the same road would do well understanding the objectives of the industrial action, which would help explain the contrasting and somewhat contradictory after-action analysis of this work stoppage (i.e. some say it worked, some say it was futile).

The strike seen as a success
As a cry for help, the two-day strike by workers from Singapore's largest rail and bus operator that began on Monday 26 November 2012 certainly got its ring leaders the attention they wanted. Perhaps even more than they bargained for.

Working without the benefit of a public relations (PR) agency to tell their side of the story, the strike by the China bus drivers made it to Page 1 in The Straits Times for six straight days after D-Day. It was the Page 1 lead story on five of these days:

Tues 27 Nov: 102 SMRT bus drivers protest against pay
Weds 28 Nov: Govt moves against 'illegal strike' (Pg 1 lead)
Thurs 29 Nov: Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers (Pg 1 lead)
Fri 30 Nov: Four SMRT bus drivers charged over strike (Pg 1 lead)
Sat 1 Dec: SMRT has deep-seated issues: CEO (Pg 1 lead)
Sun 2 Dec: 29 bus drivers to be sent back to China (Pg 1 lead)

Publicity coup
The track record of publicity generated in the print, broadcast and social media would do any PR professional proud. This is quite possibly the longest-running company-centric story with an unbroken string of Page 1 leads in the 90 cents newspaper in recent memory. The event was possibly helped by the fact that Singapore had not seen a strike in the last 26 years. Indeed, the last strike predates the journalism careers of everyone on the 90 cent's newspaper's payroll. This being a man-bites-dog moment, it quite naturally dominated Prime News.

Timing helped drive publicity
Whether by accident or design, the timing of the industrial action also coincided with the dry news spell during the November/December year-end holiday season. This is a period when newsmakers typically have fewer news releases to announce, which means editors tend to milk a newspoint for all it's worth to fill news holes in the sked.

Welfare renaissance
That two-day "protest against pay" - a term coined by ST which no civil servant in Singapore's acronym obsessed bureaucracy would dare crunch down as an acronym - had a swift and decisive knock-on effect on SMRT's Management.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) soon came into the picture, as did assorted union officials who appeared to use the occasion to drum up support for union membership.

Pain points cited by disgruntled drivers - allegedly unequal pay, claims made over their dormitory - all came out in the open. These were addressed by MOM, SMRT, union officials and became a talking point among netizens.

The welfare renaissance that SMRT's bus drivers from China now enjoy stems directly from the industrial action that fateful Monday. It may have been unlawful to do so, but it made SMRT's Management sit up, listen and, most importantly, act on their bus drivers' concerns.

The strike seen as a failure
From a law enforcement standpoint, the industrial action could be deemed a failure because the momentum of the strike fizzled out after just two days.

Day 1: 171 SMRT bus drivers from China housed at Woodlands dormitory did not report to work.
Day 2: The number of striking SMRT bus drivers who did not report for work dwindled to 88 drivers. This translates to a 48.5% loss of support.
Day 3: Cessation of industrial action. Twenty drivers called in by the Singapore police for questioning

Singapore should count itself fortunate that the strike lost momentum and did not grow into something akin to the Polish shipyard workers' strike or sit ins by British coal miners.

Business intelligence failure
Before classing it a failure, one should note that the wildcat strike was launched with almost complete success in terms of surprise. It appeared to catch SMRT's management blindsided, which indicates that the company had not paid attention to cultivating advocates among its workforce who could be relied upon to tip-off Management of feelings from the ground.

One does not mobilise 171 people for a collective action without prior planning. It also needs a grassroots communications network that can convince participants to take part and sort out logistics like the date and time of the industrial action.

That not a word leaked out either shows that the ring leaders practised good information security, or that tell-tale signs of impending trouble like ground chatter in staff canteens was not picked up by SMRT's Management or were heard but ignored.

Critical mass and will to fight
The strike failed for the same reasons that defeat most tactical level military action: lack of critical mass and lack of the will to fight.

It would have been a different story if all SMRT drivers worked to rule in sympathy with the 171 drivers. Consequences of this collective action on an essential service provided by SMRT are not hard to imagine.

But with the loss of critical mass on Day 2, it was only a matter of time before the show ended.

On that score, Singapore's law enforcement authorities and labour relations professionals would be right in classifying the strike as a failure because the action initiated on Day 1 failed to gain traction and withered away within 48 hours.

However, when one views the industrial action as a cry for help after all other avenues were supposedly exhausted, then the welfare renaissance it triggered would rank it a success.

Importance of staff relations/internal comms
Staff relations is usually treated as an unglamourous part of a HR professional's job. Management may not see the need to devote manpower or monetary resources needed to raise, train and sustain a staff relations/internal comms campaign, or may give token attention to such initiatives.

Not every HR professional enjoys or excels at playing the part of talk show host during Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) to coax team members to speak their mind. But the talk show hat is one HR professionals must learn to wear, particularly because Singaporeans and an Asian workforce are not known to be vocal in person.

The moderator must also be quick to pick up body language that may telegraph intentions of team members to speak up about a certain issue but are wary about doing so. Experienced HR professionals would always linger on after a focus group is dismissed as a team member may come back after the group has dispersed to speak in private about a matter that bugs him/her.

The job of compiling FGD minutes of meeting into action items is often seen as an unwelcome chore, particularly with HR professionals who are not good with words to begin with and find difficulty putting pen to paper.

Furthermore, action items unearthed during FGDs may chafe nerves of supervisors who do not accept feedback in the spirit in which it is given (i.e. to create a better workplace). These individuals may take the feedback as personal criticism. Worse is to come when team members who are known to be vocal are marked as black sheep and made to pay for speaking up during the annual ranking and banding exercise.

Good staff relations
When staff relations works as planned, a HR department with its ear on the ground and a proven track record at listening to and acting on staff feedback can help Management avert situations faced by SMRT. Indeed, with good business intelligence, petitions circulating among team members have been intercepted during the signature phase and proactive action taken to address pain points.

The tricky part comes when team members need to be convinced that Management decisions, while not popular, are necessary because not all feedback can be acceded to at a time and pace that team members may want.

At the heart of all staff relations is Management's sincerity in treating all team members with dignity and respect. Without this mindset, all the sweet words and focus group discussions in the world will not help quell restive souls among workers.

You may also like:
Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa. Click here

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When the balloon goes up: Radar-equipped aerostats to perform sentry duty

The phrase "when the balloon goes up" takes on a whole new meaning when radar-equipped balloons belonging to a certain air force are installed at a certain place.

Moored balloons will help with sense-making of the air situation picture by extending the radar horizon (literally) above and beyond the range of terrestrial radar emitters. This task is already a complex one in peacetime owing to the large number of flying objects around this place.

Once the aerostats go into service, they will add a new and unmistakeable feature to the landscape when hauled to ground level for maintenance. The aerostat's sheer size makes it difficult to hide from nosey people outside the fenceline, which means that sooner or later, someone will notice. :-)

At their operational ceiling thousands of feet above ground level, the aerostat will be hardly visible to ground observers. However, that vantage point gives the aerostat's sensors better visibility. Being higher allows the emitter to see far and see more.

The job of keeping the aerostat flying is complex too.

Among the issues that have to be sorted out before the aerostat goes aloft is that of deconflicting airspace. A cylinder of airspace around the aerostat probably needs to be sanitised to keep a safe distance between aircraft, the aerostat itself and, more importantly, the cable that anchors the aerostat to the ground. The last item will be near invisible to pilots flying about in high performance aircraft.

Lightning protection will be another point to consider. With millions of dollars worth of sensitive electronics in the air of one of the most lightning prone areas of the globe, defence engineers have to ensure the investment does not fry the moment a lightning bolt zaps the machine.

If it works as planned, the aerostat will herald exciting times for airspace watchers in that place.